“Now before it is too late” - Ultracontemporary art as a response to contemporary political apathy.

 A text written by philosopher Carsten Friberg

#nowbeforeitistolate, 2016, Color: Ruby Red (#NOW) Novial gold (beforeitistoolate) Dimensions: 150 cm wide Edition: 5 + 2AP 

#nowbeforeitistolate, 2016, Color: Ruby Red (#NOW) Novial gold (beforeitistoolate) Dimensions: 150 cm wide
Edition: 5 + 2AP 

1. Introduction

“Now before it is too late” refers to the artist Thierry Geoffroy’s request for artistic responses to contemporary society. I will discuss this imperative that highlights his art format, Format Art, and which calls for an awareness of the emergencies of today. It is the inspiration for the idea behind the first Ultracontemporary Biennale to take place in Copenhagen in 2017.

Format Art, which can be seen as an example of dialogical aesthetics [1], is a response to a cultural and political apathy. It also relates to a question about the artist’s role in society and poses the question: “Is art in advance of a broken arm?” With a clear reference to Marcel Duchamp’s exhibited snow shovel from 1915 the question is, whether we can ascribe to artists a sensibility that can be used for detecting social and cultural issues before they form problematic agendas. The question does not imply a general statement about the artist’s role, neither does it say that such a sensibility belongs to artists more than to anyone else who is concerned with participation in public debates and politics. However the question does have a normative implication. To be in advance of a broken arm one ought to act; to be in advance of a broken society one must act.

Instead of discussing the artist’s possible sensibility or moral imperatives, I wish, in a hermeneutic fashion, to ask for the questions on which the idea of ultracontemporary art is an answer. This concerns how apathy can become so dominant in contemporary society. A question along with this is, why ultra-contemporary and not simply contemporary? This relates to an urgency of action, in advance of a broken society and to a general condition of contemporary society: it is in constant and accelerating change therefore anticipation and prevention of errors requires swift and fast action.

I will begin with the idea of accelerating changes, which creates the idea of innovation and calls forth an urgent need for action now, before it is too late. Reinhart Kosselleck (1992), Hermann Lübbe (2002) and Hartmut Rosa (2010) formed the basis for this, as well as Peter Sloterdijk’s book Die schreklichen Kinder der Neuzeit (The horrible children of Modernity) from 2014 and this will be my focal point for suggesting how apathy emerges as a consequence of the culture of innovation. In discussing apathy I will include also Mario Perniola’s essay Berlusconi o il ’68 realizzato (Berlusconi or ’68 realised) from 2011.

Before beginning, I will make a statement about aesthetics: aesthetics is fundamentally a discipline for political reflection and critique. It forms my premise for interpreting the context and implication of Thierry Geoffroy’s art.

 

EMERGENCY ROOM, Moma PS1, 2007.  A daily changing exhibition format developed by Thierry Geoffroy/ COLONEL. http://www.emergencyrooms.org

EMERGENCY ROOM, Moma PS1, 2007.  A daily changing exhibition format developed by Thierry Geoffroy/ COLONEL. http://www.emergencyrooms.org

2. Aesthetics as the locale for political reflection

The question: ‘Can art be in advance of the broken arm?’  has been asked by Thierry Geoffoy at more occasions and also been the title of an exhibition in 2013 at Marianne Friis in Copenhagen. The question is if artists should be in forefront in informing society about the troubles and problems he encounters”, having a ”role in society as one who has to alert his surroundings of wrongdoings”? [2]. Are artists detectors of appearances in our society, being aware of them before they become widely known and manifest? Do artist have such sensitivity? Perhaps one premise here is to relate the idea of ultracontemporary art to the original idea of aesthetics as a sensorial cognition. A condition for such discernment is to be sensitive towards the environment. It is to have a ‘feeling’ of a situation, to detect it and hence be aware of how to handle it. We all do this and exercise this sensitivity in our social relations. We all train our sensitivity in relation to cultural products – we demonstrate it in judgements of taste. We train our sensitivity to the point where we can enter social relations whereas artists are, perhaps, working from a more developed sensitivity – a hypersensitivity.

The Emergency will replace the contemporary, 2012, white spray pain on tent, Documenta Kassel, image published on a front page of  H ART magazine.

The Emergency will replace the contemporary, 2012, white spray pain on tent, Documenta Kassel, image published on a front page of  H ART magazine.

Aesthetics is not necessarily political, and in some forms is very far from being critical. Also, the relation to politics is far from always explicit; it is probably true to say, it is more the exception than the rule to find an explicit reflection on the political relation in many aesthetic products and situations today. Ignoring the political, however, does not take away the inherent political ideology behind it; it only ignores the reflection of what it implies.

What is ignored is the implicit ideology of cultural products, their communication and influence on our sensorial education and consequently perception of the environment [3]. Since Plato in his Republic criticised the problematic influence of immoral poetry on young citizens and he, in Laws, discussed the best form of music and dance for the education of citizens, this topic has been part of Western philosophy.

Education is about social skills, among them is our faculty of judgement. It is no coincidence Kant discusses the aesthetic judgement in his Critique of Judgement which is a book on the faculty of judgement and not aesthetics. An aesthetic judgement, or judgement of taste, demonstrates how we have learned to distinguish between cultural artefacts and situations, while being formed by the society we live in. In exercising my taste in cultural phenomena, I demonstrate my position in the society (Kant, 1974, § 40; see Gadamer, 1993, 105).

Since the age of Kant and especially through the influence of Romanticism, we can say that cultural artefacts have either invited us to the community they belong to or invited us to form alternative communities. In the latter form they become explicitly political, forming an opposition to the established order (Gadamer, 1993, 98; Perniola, 2002). The former is no less political, it only confirms the existing order. In either case, the use of sensorial means is essential for the invitation and for the participant to be acquainted with the norms of the community in order to become member of it. Any cultural and subcultural group will demonstrate its community through sensorial means like forms of linguistic expressions, dress codes, bodily appearance and in relation to other cultural artefacts appreciated. In its most basic form we all know it, from learning to drink coffee, listening to jazz music, avoiding some clothing and similar seemingly small and ordinary things, although all of them add up to define our cultural and social relations.

The judgement of taste is a social judgement formed through social practices and hence it is political. It is linked to aesthetics in more ways in which the imaginative faculty plays an important role. While one approach is through the ability to imagine alternatives to the existing order – and through that offer alternatives – one that is often explicitly political, another is more concerned with educating our sensorial and perceptual faculties and through them forming us as participants in a social order. We find this approach in Kant’s characterisation of the function of our imaginative faculty, when for him the harmony between imagination and intellect gives rise to a feeling of pleasure uttered in the aesthetic judgement. It becomes then a judgement, through which we demonstrate to others experiencing the same feeling of pleasure, a shared cultural background founded on similar experiences and memories. We express, then, an evaluation of cultural artefacts that we expect others to share with us (Kant, 1974, § 57).

We should see Plato’s criticism of artists who do not live up to the moral and political standards of the society in this light. What we experience affects our imaginative faculty, and to form a community we must hope for shared experiences to create similarities in judgements. If experiences diverge too much, they will undermine the basis for collective judgements. When experiences, in an age of multiple sources of information and resources for experiments and alternatives, become increasingly diverse and multiplied, the engagement appears paradoxical – to the limit of cultural apathy. The potentially rich ground of experience enables us to engage in far more different communities but seems to give the opposite outcome, in that they are reduced from experiences that require engagement to information that are only registered but never appropriated in life.

EMERGENCY ROOM, Poland at European Culture Congress and EMERGENCY ROOM  MOMA PS1, New York 

EMERGENCY ROOM, Poland at European Culture Congress and EMERGENCY ROOM  MOMA PS1, New York 

 

3. Acceleration of cultural changes

“The Emergency Room is an art format where a space is designed for the artist to work on responding to the emergencies of the day. Hence the exhibition changes every day. The artists use their trained sensibility to detect and respond to occurrences and events that calls for reactions that can reveal malfunctions of the society. The Emergency Room answers the time issue of contemporary art that often cannot be contemporary to actual events when the time from event to idea and to the final product also finding a platform for reaching an audience has long made the art work in delay with the event – it is no longer contemporary” [4].

Now before it is too late, 6/12 2014 , 7 x 7 c, black marker text and drawing on carton

Now before it is too late, 6/12 2014 , 7 x 7 c, black marker text and drawing on carton

”Now before it is too late” is an imperative for immediate action – either we will be too late because the action becomes obsolete if we do not act now or, the simple consequence, if we do not act things will go wrong.

A premise for this breathless idea is that we live in an epoch in which changes of cultural and social matters form a condition for our world-relation and furthermore that changes are accelerating. Consequently, we experience a diminishing of the present (Gegenwartsschrumpfung, Lübbe, 2000, 11) which increases the urge to act before the present has become the past and the action becomes either obsolete or impotent because the future has already arrived and agendas have changed.

This premise could be questioned (See Rosa, 2010, 33 ff. and Lübbe, 2000) as well as attention could be drawn to how there have always been epochs of dramatic change due to wars, political revolts, migration and natural catastrophes. Events like the fall of the Roman Empire and the plague in the 14th century have fundamentally changed the world for contemporary people, but these changes are the exception to the existing general world order. The idea of acceleration is specific to the Modern age. An epoch in which, in the words of Gianni Vattimo, “simply being modern became a decisive value in itself” (Vattimo, 1992, 1). What is seen to follow, in the characteristics of Kosseleck, Lübbe and Rosa among more, is that the urge to be modern is intensifying and accelerating. Acceleration becomes a characteristic of our epoch, emerging in the 18th century to find many different expressions. One such expression is the call for permanent revolution, made by Robespierre in his speech to the French Assembly on 10th May 1793: “The time has arrived for everyone to reclaim their true destination; the progress of human reason has prepared this great revolution and it is specially imposed on you to accelerate it” [5].

Such events call for reactions and adjustments, and Hermann Lübbe has in more writings analysed how a ‘diminishing present’ gives rise to compensating phenomena, such as memorials and preservation of the build environment (Lübbe, 1994, 55 ff.) responding to  “a loss of cultural confidence due to time conditioned changes” (Ibid., 58, my translation. See also Lübbe, 1983, 50 f. for a long list of examples and Sloterdijk 2014, 87 ff.). The fundamental importance of such phenomena, the reason these are not only examples of cultural reactions to specific experiences but a fundamental characteristic of the modern world, is due to a discontinuity between our experiences and expectations (Koselleck, 1992, 349 ff.). Such discontinuity explains why history is reduced from our once main source of knowledge to something of mere historical interest. Past experiences lose value to the present because they were made in a context which no longer exists. They become untimely for our expectations, directed towards a present and a future of a fundamentally different form. We lose a classical idea: historia magistra vitae (ibid., 38 ff.) because we no longer consider ourselves to identify with the old (ibid., 18).

As a consequence, discontinuity has the decisive value of being modern. This includes a complete modernization. A permanent revolution, where each new step must soon be overturned by what is newer. It is an imperative of turning over and throwing away, as expressed in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto from 1909: “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts – we want it to happen!” [6].

Seen from old age, such overturning and revolts are horrible; for the modern, it is the condition. Not necessarily in the radical form of the Futurists: “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers”, nevertheless with an idea that the fundamental values of contemporary society are innovation and progress which implies a destruction of the old. To the old world, where the decisive value was maintaining order and where children should copy their parents (Sloterdijk, 2014, 222) even, in our eyes, harmless innovation could be taken as dangerous. What harm could, for instance, a fork be? A new instrument for eating which has introduced a small step towards better sanitary conditions whilst eating and stops us from putting our greasy hands into the food. For the old world such steps could be huge, to the extent of being cursed (Elias, 2000, 59; see also 107 ff.).

We no longer live in the old world and have become accustomed to innovation as an unquestioned value, but even in the modern world we must look back at the old to see what gave birth to our contemporary ideas. Without being aware of what questions those ideas were meant to answer, we stumble towards present and future events blinded as to why we have the direction we have.

CRITICAL RUN debate: ARE CRITICS CRITICAL? at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2010

CRITICAL RUN debate: ARE CRITICS CRITICAL? at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2010

 

4. The horrible children of modernity and their current heir

Every day the “Awareness muscle” must be trained! To keep up with cultural events and maintain the sensibility, one must be fit for the situation and make sure one’s awareness is not dulled. Only training can prevent the artist also from falling into the apathy, so widespread in our time. Such training is well executed whilst doing also physical exercises. While running, on a cross trainer, lifting weights etc. one should be engaged in debates and these discourses take on a form due to the physical exercise. It is not possible to engage in very long arguments without losing one’s breath, thus inviting partners into dialogue and forcing them to make short and clear points.

The awareness muscle has to be trained every day,  2016, Color: cold white, Dimensions: 150 cm x 52 cm, Edition: 5 + 2AP

The awareness muscle has to be trained every day,  2016, Color: cold white, Dimensions: 150 cm x 52 cm, Edition: 5 + 2AP

Renewal and innovation become imperatives of our epoch. The obvious value of the old, for the old world interpretation, is for the new world so obviously discarded that this act of disposal becomes itself a new obviousness (Sloterdijk, 1987, 50). A characteristic of modern life, of innovation, is also a novelty of one’s position within social hierarchies, where positions handed down from the previous generation are neither acceptable nor appropriate for modern people. One must, to be modern, liberate oneself from existing structures and become self-made. However, emancipation and autonomy as modern ideals seem to be in danger of ending in apathy. In the history of philosophy, apathy relates to Pyrrho, as Cicero tells us in Academica, 2, 130. Pyrrho intended to live a life of apathy, of being indifferent to things – a life made possible because “he was kept out of harm’s way by his friends” (Diogenes Laertius, 1995, 475).

For us, innovation may become too much of a challenge, leading to a more wide-spread ignorance and non-commitment to the cultural and social environment – to apathy as a result, and not like Pyrrho as a means. This is one perspective of the modern age, offering itself through the two texts by Sloterdijk and Perniola.

 

4a. Sloterdijk’s horrible children

Through several historical figures Sloterdijk, in his book on the horrible children of Modernity, points at the break away from an old interpretation, of a world stable and unchanging in Louis XIV’s famous, ‘L'état, c'est moi’, via revolution and radical critique in Napoleon: ‘I am the French revolution', and Nietzsche’s, ‘I am dynamite’, to a modern condition expressed when Leon Trotsky speaks about the permanent revolution (Sloterdijk, 2014, 40 f.).

Such changes do not happen instantly. They evolve over a long period and Sloterdijk’s narrative stretches over two centuries. We can call it a philosophical narrative. The different characters all play roles as significant examples of a change in world interpretation, to which probably as many counter examples could be found. The point here is not to discuss if his examples can carry the weight of being such crucial protagonists for the emergence of our current world interpretation; it may be a fictive philosophical narrative but then, apparently suitable for an age in which fiction becomes fundamental either as an idea of creating one’s own narrative and living out one’s dreams, or as necessary fiction in the forms of statistics, prognosis and similar simulations of reality to plan for tomorrow (Marquard, 1989, 83 ff.).

A self-made person with ambitious personal goals is Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. A soothsayer had foretold that she, by then only 9 years old, would one day conquer the heart of the king (Sloterdijk, 2014, 46 f.). Fifteen years later she would realise the prophecy. The then young Madame de Pompadour would, in February 1745, achieve the goal and conclude a journey from an illegitimate child to the mistress of the king (ibid., 50). Not only is she self-made, she demonstrates the ability to pursue the dream of a private-revolutionary state of emergency and becomes, hence, a daughter of the beginning Modernity (ibid., 76). She is modern in defying the metaphysical idea that the world is in order and the political world must imitate this order to prevent disorder, which implies the impossibility of an illegitimate child of a bourgeois background to pursue a goal bringing her to the king’s bed. Defying the structure reflecting the order of the Creator can only be interpreted as immoral. An illegitimate child is already out of order, but a child born in the false bed (ibid., 46) rising to the position in the king’s bed must be seen as a sign of either being the most horrible child possible or of an order in danger of breaking down as it delegitimises itself. When Madame de Pompadour responded to the news of the French defeat in a battle to Prussia November 1757 with ‘après nous le déluge!’ she expressed what may be expected to follow such a breach of order she herself represented. How prophetic her words would turn out to be? She could as little as anyone else have been aware of. A generation later the flood would wash away the royal institution.

What we find in Madame de Pompadour is her example as a child of Modernity, of an age where a gap between the cosmic order of the old world and the infinite possibilities of the modern world emerge (ibid., 83). She is a horrible child in the eyes of her contemporaries, stepping into the court the way she did – which does not exclude her from becoming object of both envy as well as contempt. Being illegitimate she would not be the heir to an enviable fate but Modernity is exactly the age in which inheritability is not a destiny, but a challenge to overcome (ibid., 394). It is to overcome more than two millenniums’ idea of a static cosmology, of inheriting one’s place in the world making it impossible to improve one’s fate, due to being a human inclined to fail in such attempts – what is known as the original sin. Modernity is a revolt against this idea, no longer comprehensible but now a provocation as the self-made modern man cannot be doomed to their ancestors’ lives, instead having to reject their mistaken copies of the old world (ibid., 26). When the flood came, the one washing away the institutions of the old world and, by Robespierre, calling for an acceleration of progress, the immoral being in need of institutions to guard and guide it through the world became the one asking, in the so-called Oldest System Programme of German Idealism from 1796: “how must the world be for a moral being?” (Bowie, 1993, 265).

Madame de Pompadour’s self-creation is a fiction, her own, followed until its realisation and as such she is a modern self-made woman but without an effect on the institutions beyond herself. She differs in this from another of Sloterdijk’s figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, who also came from nothing to move towards the impossible (Sloterdijk, 2014, 121) – though he rejected the word impossible: ‘Impossible n’est pas français‘ (ibid., 109). With his coronation in 1804 he became Napoleon I, hence founding a dynasty seen to be doomed from the start. He had been married to Joséphine de Beauharnais for eight years without any children, causing everyone to believe he was sterile as she already had two children.

While Madame de Pompadour made a difference for herself (but not intendedly beyond herself), Napoleon became an action to which Europe reacted (ibid., 123). She could prove the royal institution to have become impotent by allowing her rise from fiction to reality. He could make the idea of the king ruling by grace obsolete. With the beheading of Louis XVI the institution of the king having legitimacy from God was beheaded. Napoleon could instead insist on having his legitimacy from the people – ‘empéreur par la volonté nationale‘ (ibid., 110) and declare himself emperor with the pope diminished to the role of supernumerary.

These first generations of modern children were personalizing their goals, casting themselves in the main role as liberators of surplus energy in Modernity, what Nietzsche named the Will to Power (ibid., 197). They are also emphatic examples and exceptions with grandiose dreams brought into reality. They represent an idea of the emancipated, autonomous and self-made individual of Modernity, but the modern world in its complexity may also prove to be too much for individuals, something that can make the sensitive soul ask, like Friedrich Hölderlin in Bread and Wine from 1801, Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? What are poets for when times are hard? Hard times can be times where the origin and meaning of pain, death and love as essential relations to the world evade us (Heidegger, 1980, 271). Or when the world proves not to move in any direction by itself and more prosaic thinkers can see it as a question of giving theoretical guidance to create a movement with direction such as Vladimir Lenin, 101 years later, asking: What is to be Done? Witnessing the acceleration of the modern age, it became clear to him that no meaningful modern world appears unless a meaningful direction is outlined: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (Lenin, 1902, 12). Theory is still on side with fiction, but now as a philosopher’s dream – a dream creating chaos for a decade until Joseph Stalin could combine theory with practical means and arming the dreaming Platonism (Sloterdijk, 2014, 165).

Defining and pursuing goals are essential for the modern world; the same world which has also demonstrated that the dreams of the horrible children may go horribly wrong, hence indicating impossible  goals as if we are in a race, moving both forward as well as sideways. The madman of Nietzsche can, when he announces the death of God in his famous aphorism 125 of The Gay Science, ask: Aren't we perpetually falling? (ibid., 71 f.).

ARTIST JOURNALIST,  at The Danish Parliament, Christiansborg

ARTIST JOURNALIST,  at The Danish Parliament, Christiansborg

4b. The children’s progression towards reaction

A moral imperative of our age develops to wash away the old. The flood was a punishment in the biblical age and has become a cultural cleansing tool – not just a bucket of water to clean up, but enough water to wash away everything so we can start again, not once but over and over, seeing new as progress and old is reaction. The imperative of flooding interpreted as emancipation and progress.

What in the modern mind becomes emancipation is abandoning biblical ideas such as debts to our ancestors; a debtor’s relation that we are born into and, in the Christian-Western philosophy, cannot be undone through our acts, rather as only God can, which answers why God became man as explained by Anselm in the 11th century Cur Deus Homo? : “as long as man does not restore what he owes God, he cannot be happy” (Anselm, 1903, I, 24) giving rise to the problem that “this debt was so great that, while none but man must solve the debt, none but God was able to do it; so that he who does it must be both God and man” (ibid., II, 17). Such debt is the original sin, which is an absurd idea for the self-made modern citizen who cannot feel responsibility for past generations’ acts. The transition of the life situation of the ancestors should not be the fate of the children. If anything, it is a challenge, a situation to improve.

According to Sloterdijk (2014, 13 ff.), original sin has two forms. One form is logic, due to which corruption of the human prototype is transmitted through reproduction – in modern form a failure in the DNA. Whilst ignoring the difficulty about the omnipotent creator being responsible for the possibility of the original corruption, the logic may be understandable to the modern mind. Much harder is the other form, the moral and sexual pathology, due to which each man cannot not sin but is born with an inclination to sin, concupiscence; an inclination manifesting itself in the libido.

Apathy, cotton fabric on pavé stone, 11 x 9 cm

Apathy, cotton fabric on pavé stone, 11 x 9 cm

The explanation had its appeal in a culture of repetition and copying which connects one generation to the next, but for the modern individuality it has become a stumbling-block and the idea of debt is an idea from which one should  liberate oneself(ibid., 257). Particularly the different forms of institutionalised instalments have been targeted as being an oppressive ideology, incapable of redeeming what it promises: “The adolescent learns that the renunciations of instinctual urges expected from him are not adequately compensated, that, for instance, the sublimation of sexual goals required by civilization fails to obtain for him the material security in the name of which it is preached” (Horkheimer, 1947, 111).

However, discarding institutionalised debt also has its price, such as losing another sense concerning compensation for the irreversibility of events and our limited ability to control them, as well as the limited ability to orient oneself in a world of great complexity. Due to these limitations, a fundamental experience is that “of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing” (Arendt, 1998, 237). The remedy for coping with this situation is to forgive. Forgiving appears to be a crucial act of acceptance and reconciliation, with a strange world as well as with a community: forgiveness includes others, as it is the forgiveness that is given to us from another that matters. Forgiving is an unpredictable act, a “reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefor freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven” (ibid., 241). Forgiving offers the possibility to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

The modern, self-made person insists on being in charge of life, to live out the dreams of creating one’s own existence, whether in the form of Madame Pompadour’s own goals, Napoleon’s foundation of a new dynasty or Lenin forming the direction of a revolution movement. To be modern is to be emancipated from previous tasks and goals; it is to live in an epoch in which inheriting the disadvantages of a previous age becomes the subject of public conflict (Sloterdijk, 2014, 394). They are answered through the administration and organisation of an environment in our interests, by transforming “all modern communities into societies of laborers and jobholders” where there is only one goal: “to sustain life” (Arendt, 1998, 46). In pre-modern philosophy, sustaining life was not the completion of human activity but a necessity to survive, and what we do out of  necessity has throughout Western philosophy been considered the least human activity, as we share this with animals. Acting as a human is to act freely, whereas to act of necessity is to be slave of the conditions – it was not because work was despised that it was left to the slaves, it was left to them because of their slavish nature, because they did not master necessity but acted out of it (ibid., 83).

Labour becomes of value in the modern epoch, combined with a dominant idea that everything we do is for the purpose of contributing to sustaining our lives to the extent that it becomes the sole purpose and the imperative of the age is to become innovative, to speed up the pace towards improvement. Thus pragmatic goals replace the old generations’ submission to a reactionary world-interpretation, making them subject to criticism like the one Max Horkheimer directs towards Pragmatism: “In order to prove its right to be conceived, each thought must have an alibi, must present a record of its expediency. Even if its direct use is 'theoretical’ it is ultimately put to test by the practical application of the theory in which it functions. Thought must be gauged by something that is not thought, by its effect on production or its impact on social conduct, as art today is being ultimately gauged in every detail by something that is not art, be it box-office or propaganda value” (Horkheimer, 1947, 50 f.).

One consequence is the lack of commitment to values and interpretation, passed forward from past generations because they largely appear meaningless, outdated and oppressive. The self-made wo/man is a Cartesian fundamentalist who wants to start all over again by their self and is, as such, in no need for forgiveness because the old is considered a world of obsolete values without any obligation to the present. The modern Cartesian proves to be a fundamentalist, who pursues Descartes’ strategy of doubt to the extreme, where his cautious acknowledgment of a provisional moral code is ignored.

The wisdom behind the idea of sin and forgiveness is one of making the burdens of the world bearable when past events have accumulated beyond what we can be freed from. The modern idea is to liberate oneself from exactly this idea of being domed to carrying the burden of the past; to be modern is to be responsible only for the deeds one has done – as if their only origin are in a lucid and rational modern subject, detached from any cultural and linguistic context. The emancipated, autonomous subject dismisses the old model to substitute it with one of permanent evaluation of how our deeds add to the agenda of growth – and where it is hardly necessary to specify what must grow, as growth has become a value in itself and innovation the means appearing in agendas of self-development, self-realisation and self-making. Decisiveness along with innovation becomes the norm to maintain the present, the values won through emancipation from conservative traditions of troubling the children with the parents’ – and remote parents’ – deeds. A new conservatism emerges then: to conserve the emancipatory move, with no specific direction apart from the one pointing away from something. This pointless movement also gives rise to apathy.

 

4c. Perniola’s children of ‘68

DO ARTISTS HAVE A ROLE OR A FUNCTION, 2016, 17 x 10 cm, Black marker text and color print on carton

DO ARTISTS HAVE A ROLE OR A FUNCTION, 2016, 17 x 10 cm, Black marker text and color print on carton

A culmination of this emancipatory project becomes apparent with ’68, a symbolic year bringing forth a variety of different cultural appearances in the second part of 20th century. Often it is seen as a political symbol, with the events in Paris in May as a turning point, but it is also related to many cultural transformations made visible through mass events of the late ’60s such as Summer of Love, which took place in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. Often ’68 is simply used to refer to a set of ill-defined ideas or a generation. One should be careful to distinguish between events around ’68 determining more forms of emancipation in Western culture, and a political movement with a strong relation to Marxism. While the latter may sometimes be accused of being destructive to an old political and social order, an accusation not surprisingly coming from the adherents of that same order, it is rather that the first has been an exponent for transformation of the existing cultural values.

Without discussing the cultural reactions, expressions and transformations relating to ’68 or considering if this is really about specific events which only occurred in that single year or to the decade surrounding the year, the number 68 represents a culmination of cultural transformation perceived as liberation from past value-systems in the spirit of the horrible children of modernity.

A self-realisation like Madame de Pompadour’s can serve as an example of how far it can bring one, if only one believes firmly in oneself and can find ways to release all their inner resources that the surrounding society has been suppressing. One should not hesitate to repeat grandiose and also impossible foundations like Napoleon’s. Instead of founding a new dynasty, it can be a new religion: “You are God – but only you can discover and nurture your divinity” (Leary, 1999, 7).

In his essay Perniola draws a line from ’68 to the politician Silvio Berlusconi by pointing out the many consequences of the emancipatory steps made in relation to what we call ’68, such as liberation from classical structures of work and family, from ideas of sexuality, from respect for authorities and institutions, from recognition of history and tradition (Perniola, 2011, 11). Berlusconi is a conclusion of “a period beginning in ’68 in which the logical foundation of thought and action has been replaced by a collective feeling manipulated and raving, lunatic and whimsical” (ibid., my translation).

Interpreting ’68 as a revolt creating the petit-bourgeoisie is provocative. Perniola has been criticised for neglecting the progressive content and political ambitions of the movement, including betraying his own role in it (See Bifo, 2012). But the idea is not to neglect the different progressive and emancipatory elements in the movement, something appearing to be in stark contrast to the political movement linked to Berlusconi and similar transformations of the political landscape in other countries; it is to point out some of the consequences of this emancipation, which go far beyond more clearly defined political goals, to become a cultural transformation – not least by the formation of a middle class characterised by material standards, with progressive values subverting the classic bourgeoisie and without a clearly defined political value system beyond the protection of material standards and liberties achieved. This may give reason to question what kind of emancipation is present, whether it liberates the individual from structures of suppression and allows the formation of free and independent individuals in a society, or it creates an idea of atomized individuals, freed of obligations to society and common norms, whilst being consumed by ideologies of unlimited freedom [7]. In light of the latter ’68 is, despite appearances, a politically motivated, progressive and, though questionable, emancipatory movement, which formed a foundation for the emergence of widespread apathy.

The manifold consequences of ’68 appear paradoxical because, at first glance, they seem to contradict what ’68 was about, at least the common perception of the movement. An example is the destiny of political content - which could be celebrated as the dawn of revolution like Marcuse did (1969) – and many labour conflicts which took place in the intervening years. What began as opposition to capitalism has turned out to also be a source of inspiration and innovation within that same capitalist system, transforming rather than ending it. It brought new life to the economic system, becoming the new spirit of capitalism such as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello interpret it (2007). What was experimental and in opposition to a traditional Fordist model of economy and a bourgeois set of values, such as meditation, creativity, self-development and self-organisation, have become fundamental to the new liberal economy that has weakened the classical economic oppositions and power structures only to restructure them – for example by eliminating the classical bourgeoisie that was the foundation of classical cultural values but seen as unproductive since they live on their fortune and interests and hence do not contribute to the growth of the market and economy (Perniola, 2011, 20). A cultural bourgeoisie has been diminished to make room for a middleclass of working consumers.

The political side of ’68 which unfolded in more events during that year and the years surrounding it cannot be denied as a political revolt in opposition to many existing values; what can be debated is what really was a consequence hereof and this is what Perniola points at. He points at a consequence and not the necessary consequence. ’68 was not a Leninist movement of a party asking what is to be done and then answering it by taking leadership. It was not elitist, though elitist groups did try to establish themselves however without a broad and legitimate leadership. It was exactly emancipation from elitist ways of thinking; an urge to liberate people from structures hindering complete self-realisation and individuality by asking for conformity and maintenance of old power structures and values, something resulting in a provisional culmination of reality and talent shows and not least social networks granting everyone star status (ibid., 10 ff.). Despite two centuries since Madame de Pompadour demonstrated a perfect modern, unlimited self-realisation and began the long list of horrible children who would follow in her footsteps, such steps are many before the act of the one become the agenda for all.

Apathy as an outcome of these changes is not the word used by Perniola, but it seems a legitimate notion to include in order to illustrate the effects of a movement where it becomes imperative to be horrible in terms of rejecting the older generation’s values and establishing new. An outcome of innovation and progression seems, however, to be more of a depression – without a compensating mechanism like forgiveness to relieve one from the burden of cultural change. Rather, reactions to a permanent state of innovation may lead to a lack of involvement and a need to step back from the responsibility – it may lead to apathy – otherwise there is nothing beyond the immediate participation in omnipresent structures asking for self-performance and permanent reinvention of oneself. To be the updated consumer of baseless information and entertainment, leading to a lack of involvement beyond the immediate spectacle and ultimately to apathy. Serious political debate, intellectual absorption and cultural investigation appear to be undermined by a apathy, thus calling for an awareness of the situation.

 

5. Ultracontemporary as cultural awareness

Apart from a philosopher like Pyrrho, few have a positive perception of apathy. Apathy should be met with alternatives such as those offered in modern times by art, at least since Romanticism where art was often been endowed with political goals (Perniola, 2002, 128f.). Politics is not necessarily an explicit struggle over power but the organisation of our environment, as “the framing of a particular sphere of experience, of objects posited as common and as pertaining to a common decision, of subjects recognized as capable of designating these objects and putting forward arguments about them” (Rancière, 2009, 24). Politics relates to how the environment makes us sense and perceive, because the environment has been both physically and organisationally formed from ideas made present through these forms. Sensing, perceiving and experiencing the environment is our starting point for learning to act on an informed basis, and this starting point is from the very first moment embedded with political significance. This is described by Jacques Rancière in what he calls the distribution of the sensible: “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (Rancière, 2004, 12).

A way of keeping control of art that has a political, perhaps oppositional, element is to institutionalise it and through that silence the political potential. Such institutional control is exercised by art institutions when they create a system of perception, controlled by “the silent space of the museum in which the solitude and passivity of passers-by encounter the solitude and passivity of artworks” (Rancière, 2009, 26). The institution responds to an expectation of what is considered to belong to the institution; we perceive the object, performance or happening in answer to our aesthetic expectations (Ibid., 30), an expectation often satisfied in a form of appreciation considered appropriate for an audience member of the art world. Art, thus, is detached from its world, only to be placed in the context of an aesthetic appreciation. The classical art no longer belongs to sacral or political celebrations when placed in the museum, likewise avant-garde art is removed from its political context and becomes subject to the appreciation of an aesthetic educated audience. Perhaps most of all what this audience appreciates is the participation shared by the group of museum and gallery visitors. In the end it may turn out that they first of all appreciate their own appreciation. In this form they exercise what Hans-Georg Gadamer has called the aesthetic consciousness (Gadamer, 1990, 87ff.). Art becomes something produced for this specific situation of the appreciation of art.

The collective relation to art from previous ages, to the participation in the ancient theatre or the medieval processions, has been reduced to an individual contemplation and appreciation of art in the frame of the art-institution, which is the place of the exchange of connoisseur comments with other members of the art world. The classical avant-garde of 20th century did, in more ways, oppose this by breaking down the institutional settings and inviting the reality into the institutions, through ready-mades or fragments; and later by going the other way, placing art in the environment outside the institutions – the success and failure of this have often been debated (See Foster, 1996).

Another strong, perhaps the strongest, institutional control is the appropriation of art by the monetary system that diminishes, perhaps extinguishes, art’s autonomy by turning it into a commercial entity based on the artist’s discovery that art gains an economic value different from the materials and invested time (Perniola, 2002, 128). In the end art becomes subject to the institutions distributing and exchanging art, finding a modern alchemist in the art critics and gallery owners who can literally turn the artist’s shit (merda d’artista) into gold (Perniola, 1983, 135). This completes the urge of the aesthetic regime “to challenge in advance every opposition between autonomous art and heteronomous art, art for art’s sake and art in the service of politics, museum art and street art” (Rancière, 2009, 32).

In resistance to such silencing, and silencing art is one question to which the ultracontemporary art is an answer, one of Thierry Geoffroy’s art forms places itself outside the institutions, to be able to speak up for a wider audience than just the one present within the institution. The format is Critical Run, the idea to run a debate by literally running and do it in public, also creating awareness among other people. To run and debate at the same time not only approaches having a debate, it also resists the expectation of the audience of what should correspond to the expectations of the aesthetic regime. Another similar format is meant to question institutions, directly addressing whether they are what they pretend to be, the format of the Biennalist who intervenes in and questions biennales [8].

Critical running and intervention in biennales challenges the aesthetic regime not least by asking what it matters for, beyond the self-preservation of aesthetic sensibility taking place within the regime. The challenge of Thierry Geoffroy’s art is its resistance to performing the educated sensibility of the environment. It is a resistance to the dominant sensibility which too often becomes anaesthetic. Format Art is meant to be an answer to an urgent need to raise questions about the environment and about what the emerging situations of today are. The assumption about biennales and art fairs is not that they do not matter, or that they are not actively participating in the negotiation and redistribution of the sensible, hence challenging the political. It is to warn against falling into a self-confirmation and collective indifference to the world outside the art world and art events.

Becoming indifferent to the environment is not only a danger to the art-world, but it is a general cultural problem. Despite two centuries of enlightenment, long education, access to information and open critical discourse, the outcome is not a public on permanent alert regarding emergencies today. Rather, it seems as if the accelerated access to information and the best source of answers to the emergencies of today are also followed by an increasing apathy, as if a growing sensibility may at a certain point face a reversal to insensibility. It seems that with aesthetics come also anaesthetics (Marquard, 1989, 11 ff.).

Anaesthetics may be an outcome of the loss of values initiated around ’68, combined also with the difficulties in orientation among many new and alternative offers. If ’68 is the culmination of the self-creative and innovative character of the modern culture, this offers an explanation to the current apathy provided it is acknowledged that apathy is a dominant feature of our culture today. At least it is not hard to find examples of phenomena relating to apathy, like the expression ‘now…this’: “”Now…this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speed-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously” (Postman, 1986, 99).

Such characteristics, which already now belong to a past generation, ask for keeping up pace with the events already past and without significance when we turn to the next. Contemporary becomes a concept of diminishing value, as contemporary can only last as long as the now has not been abandoned for the next ‘now…this’.  When we are already into the next ‘this’ and meanwhile announcing the ‘this’ on the way to soon replace what we are engaged in now, the temptation of not reacting to the now is increasing. Why should it matter as we have soon left it behind us? In this accelerating line of events, a devaluation of the significance of the now appears to be a consequence to which art may call for awareness. However with an ever increasing speed to remain contemporary which will eventually, and eventually has become now, become ultracontemporary.


[1] Dialogical aesthetics is defining art “through its function as a more or less open space within contemporary culture: a space in which certain questions can be asked, certain critical analyses articulated, that would not be accepted or tolerated elsewhere”. Dialogical aesthetics “requires that we strive to acknowledge the specific identity of our interlocutors and conceive of them not simply as subjects on whose behalf we might act but as co-participants in the transformation of both self and society”. Kester, 2004, 68 and 79.
[2] http://kopenhagen.dk/magasin/magazine-single/article/video-thierry-geoffroy-in-advance-of-the-broken-arm-marianne-friis/ (accessed 15-9-2016).
[3] See for instance: Berleant, 1992; Friberg, 2014; Lefebvre, 1991; Perniola, 1991; Rancière, 2004; Shusterman, 2012; Welsch, 1996.
[4] http://www.emergencyrooms.org/short.html (accessed 15-9-2016).
[5] Assemblée nationale. http://www2.assemblee-nationale.fr/decouvrir-l-assemblee/histoire/grands-moments-d-eloquence/robespierre-gouverner-la-republique-10-mai-1793 (accessed 15-9-2016), my translation.
[6] http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/manifesto.html (accessed 15-9-2016).
[7] “The emancipation of the individual is not an emancipation from society, but the deliverance of society from atomization, an atomization that may reach its peak in periods of collectivization and mass culture”. Horkheimer, 1947, 135.
[8] http://www.emergencyrooms.org/biennalist.html (accessed 15-9-2016)
 

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